Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” you might want to save this for another day.
I read “The Road” because the story I am thinking of is a road of sorts. I wanted to see how the author executed the story, but I got way more than I bargained for. I don’t think I could or even want to make a story so dystopian.
The writing is as elemental and raw as the barren title suggests. The dialog is sparse and repetitive. “Papa, I’m scared.” “I’m sorry.” Over and over again. The man doesn’t even have a name.
For reasons beyond my comprehension, my son likes to call me Papa. Projecting myself into that world and hearing the word Papa in my head, every frigid, drenched, and blood-chilling moment the boy has to endure is a gut punch. I would hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain. I would have been suicidal if the boy had taken a bullet from his father or eaten a bullet himself.
Cormac McCarthy never dwells too deep into the past and never explains humanity’s descent into raw survival. He never has to. Father and son trudge in the ashes and the emptiness of what the past has wrought. The past is written in each barren house and city, the destroyed infrastructure, and the wreckage of trucks and boats. The man has one flashback to when his wife surrenders her life to the futility of it and pleads with him to do the same to him and the boy. The past doesn’t need explaining. That isn’t the point. The point is to show us the atrocities of the future if we f**k up the present. It doesn’t matter how we do it.
There is no ticking clock in the book, no deadline to reach because there is no place to go, just south, and only one way to get there: the road. The ticking clock is getting the next can of food before they starve. The ticking clock is knowing that one of their encounters with the bad people will inevitably go wrong.
But the one bullet he saves so the boy won’t have to endure the barbarism of captivity and cannibalism suck one into one horrific and inevitable outcome. The man has sworn that he won’t leave the boy, meaning he won’t leave the boy to be eaten by savages. When the time comes, he will do what he must. But at least while they are alive, the man does what he must to keep them that way, yet yields to the empathetic cries of his son against his better judgment when he can so they can be the good people.
Ultimately, the man can’t look into his son’s eyes and do it. He couldn’t do it when his wife took her life, and she begged him to do it. He couldn’t do it at the end. He passes on the fire to the boy, the fire being nothing more than the will to live, life for life’s sake. The man has given the boy the skills necessary to survive. But what is the point? The story the man tells his son about the good people they have never met is the fire in the boy. It’s the hope that the little boy he saw is alive and well. It’s the hope that they didn’t kill the thief the way the thief would have killed them. It’s the myth of the good people that keeps him going. The boy is the good people and needs to find good people to survive.
The woods were there before men, and the woods will be there after. Life isn’t about kill or be killed, even under the most brutal conditions. The road is no place to live and no place to grow up. The only reason for a boy to grow up is if he has a couple of kids to play with and a life to live. The point of going on is our empathy and compassion for one another. And it doesn’t hurt to have a shotgun with real ammo to enforce it.
Featured Image by Craiyon.